Born to Perform

By Kevin McKay


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If fortune favours the bold, Johnny Forrest could not have been bolder one Edmonton evening in June 1963. After hiding in a dressing room of the Edmonton Pavilion with the lights turned off for two hours, Johnny screwed up his courage, strapped on his accordion, and knocked on the door of the dressing room across the hall. When Don Messer answered, Johnny introduced himself and told the famous host of the musical variety program that he was a Scottish entertainer who felt he'd be a great addition to Don's show. "I can still hear him telling me, 'Okay laddie, let's hear you,' as plain as if it was yesterday," Johnny recalls.

An impromptu performance followed in the hallway with Johnny playing and singing his favourite Scottish songs for Mr. Messer and much of his troupe, who came out of their own dressing rooms to listen.

Fifteen minutes later, Don asked him what he was doing for the next three weeks. "I told him I could get a leave of absence from my job with the City of Edmonton to catch some of the tour," says Johnny.

The occasion was the annual summer tour that Don Messer undertook to bring the music of his show across the country. Don was from Nova Scotia, and the show was taped each week in Halifax for broadcast across Canada on CBC. Johnny knew he couldn't get to Halifax, so his only chance to prove that he belonged on the show would come when the tour came to Edmonton.

Once he secured some time off from his job, Johnny paid his own way out to the West Coast to join the tour for their show in Vancouver at the PNE Agrodome. This was Johnny's first performance as a member of Don Messer's troupe and it would be a memorable one. "The audience was in my hands, singing along with me. They gave me a standing ovation when I was finished, and Don said 'Well done, Johnny.' I rejoined the tour in Saskatchewan and did a number of shows there before heading back to Edmonton with Don's promise that he would be in touch."

That fall, a letter arrived inviting Johnny to appear on the Don Messer show for his St. Andrew's show scheduled to air near the end of November. The show would be taped that October in Halifax, so the network included a round-trip airline ticket. At the time of Johnny's first appearance on the show, it was the highest-rated television show on the CBC, even ahead of Hockey Night in Canada.

"When I first saw the script, I thought we were doing *The Johnny Forrest Show*," says Johnny. "They scheduled me for six numbers, including one playing the accordion."

After that, Johnny was asked back for the Robbie Burns tribute in January, and then joined the troupe again for the summer tour.

This pattern continued for three years, performing a couple of specials a year and then touring every summer. Then, in the summer of 1966, Johnny picked up the phone on his desk at Edmonton City Hall. Don Messer was on the line asking if he would like to be a regular on the show. "I accepted on the spot," he recalls. "This was the opportunity I had been hoping for. It had always been my dream to be a full-time entertainer."

Johnny, his wife Shirley and most of their possessions piled into a car headed east to Halifax. They moved into a Dartmouth suite and settled down to enjoy life in the Maritimes.

"Don let me choose which numbers I would like to perform, though it was always subject to his final approval, of course," says Johnny.

They taped about six weeks prior to each show going to air, and would rehearse each Wednesday and tape the episodes on Thursdays. Johnny remembers enjoying opening the shows, but felt a lot more pressure if his number came at the end of the segment. "Everyone had done their job right, the singers, the musicians and the dancers," he says. "I did not want to make any mistakes and let them down. No one wanted to retape the whole show again going back to the beginning. I prided myself on always being prepared for each show and learning my music."

Johnny received a lot of fan mail in those early months and was enjoying his success. But he also received some negative mail from people who did not like his singing or had other complaints. "Don assured me that as long as you are able to please 51 per cent of the people, you have it made," says Johnny. "I decided that I would be accepting of my audiences' reaction, no matter what they thought of my act."

For three years, Johnny was a regular on the show. In addition, he found work at local clubs and bars, doing shows and concerts on weekends, as well as putting out records. Over the years, he recorded and released 16 albums. In May 1967, Shirley gave birth to their first child - a girl born on Don Messer's birthday. They named her Lynn-Ann Dawn Forrest. Don Messer and his wife Naomi were her godparents.

From the time he was a wee lad growing up in his birthplace of Carluke, Scotland, Johnny was destined to be a musical star. The son of a coal miner, he became fascinated one day when a busker, who played the accordion, came to their small town. Johnny followed the man around all day, enthralled, and would do the same whenever the man returned. Johnny's mother decided to surprise her young son with a 12-button accordion of his own. Johnny remembers, "My eyes opened up wide with joy and happiness. It was like a little doll to me. It was my baby. I took it to bed with me. I really wanted it. I fell in love with it right away, and I was going to look after it."

He started taking lessons. Unfortunately, his small accordion was limited and Johnny could only learn a few songs. A family friend who saw the potential in the young musician loaned money to Johnny's father so he could buy a full-sized 120-button instrument for his nine-year-old son. Johnny's musical journey took off!

In those days, families made their own entertainment and Johnny's parents hosted many parties. The guests would sing and young Johnny accompanied them on his beloved accordion. "They were very proud of me and they encouraged me big time," says Johnny of his parents. "They gave me all the support I needed."

When he was 11, Johnny landed a role in a local pantomime. The performers were not paid, but Johnny says, "The pantomimes gave me the confidence to pursue my music and singing career." The pianist, Mrs. Muir, offered Johnny a chance to join her concert party. He was young and reluctant, but she convinced him to try it. They would travel around town and as far away as the "Big City" of Glasgow, 20 miles [32 km] away, to give concerts.

"I was very fortunate that these opportunities were given to me at a young age," he says. "They gave me confidence and encouragement. Every show I did, I grew a little more. I learned how to handle myself on stage."

At age 20, Johnny decided to venture out and see if he could make his fortune in Canada. While onboard *The Empress of Britain* for its Atlantic crossing, Johnny discovered a piano in the lounge and decided to play his accordion and piano to lead his fellow passengers in an impromptu sing-a-long. The next day, a number of other young passengers told Johnny they would like to join him to form a show, which they did. They entertained the people in economy class, where the lounge was located. When word got around the ship, the first-class passengers, who did not want to miss the show especially since there was no other entertainment, joined them.

Two of the passengers who caught the show were Mr. and Mrs. Rice of Edmonton, which was where Johnny was headed. Mr. Rice sent his business card to Johnny and asked him to make contact once he was settled in Alberta. This was an offer he couldn't refuse since Mr. Rice was the owner and president of CFRN radio and television in Edmonton. Johnny met Mr. Rice at his office. "He just made a call to the manager of his TV station and I was set up to go on the air the next week. The exposure was tremendous. He allowed me to expand my act. I was soon receiving invitations to appear at local clubs in towns all around Edmonton."

When he was not performing, Johnny found various jobs before going to work for the city. This lasted until the fateful day in June 1963 that changed Johnny's life.

The Don Messer Show was still doing very well in the ratings, and performing its summer tours when CBC cancelled it in 1969. Undaunted, Don moved the show to CHCH in Hamilton for the next few years, until his untimely death in March 1973.

When CBC cancelled the show, Johnny moved his family to the Lower Mainland, where they remain today. In addition to doing his shows, recording and promoting his albums, Johnny found employment with a travel agency, and eventually started his own company, Tartan Tours. Johnny also works driving a local school bus. Some of the children noticed him singing as he drove. "A young boy asked me if I was born with a microphone in front of my mouth!"

Born to entertain, he started early and has no plans to stop. "Give me a live audience to perform in front of; put me up on stage any day of the week," says Johnny.

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Comments

Showing 1 to 11 of 11 comments.

Kim Schander Hello, You might want to look for info in the Belledune New Brunswick,Dailhousie N.B. Bathurst N.B area`s for info, Naomi Messer (Gray) and my grandmother Flora Russell (Gray) were first cousins. Heidi

Posted by Heidi | April 4, 2016 Report Violation

Memories of Johnny braiding my hair in the studio. Or should I say knotting it. Hehehe. I still tease him. And his record I played till mom threatened him. Love you Johnny. Marg's daughter, Melody

Posted by Melody | February 1, 2016 Report Violation

Hello, I just happened, all these months later, to find this site again and see the very kind offer of Jane McQuarrie of an LP featuring songs of Johnny Forrest. Thank you so much for this, Jane! How can we make this happen? I will, of course, happily pay all expenses involved. I am in Simcoe, Ontario. If I am lucky and you happen to see this message, could you please contact me? My email is vermeerschmarion@hotmail.com Thanks, and hope you are having a great day, Marion

Posted by Marion Vermeersch | September 21, 2015 Report Violation

Hello Johnny. It's been a while since we saw each other last. Reading some of these other postings I was reminded of our younger days back in Edmonton when we did a few gigs together. Lillian and I still live in Victoria as do our children and grandchildren. Those were the days, my friend. Hope this wee message finds you well. By the way, I was still doing Burns Nights and singing up until this past year. Your old pal, the other Johnny.

Posted by Johnny Davidson | April 26, 2015 Report Violation

Just sitting here with my mom, Johnny's first cousin Ann, I would love any input on my second cousin johnny and how to say hello, moffat1975@yahoo.ca

Posted by Mark Moffat | March 4, 2015 Report Violation

Marion, would you be interested in an LP of his? I have "Don Messer presents Scottish Songs sung by Johnny Forrest" that I would be willing to give you.

Posted by Jane McQuarrie | March 3, 2015 Report Violation

I would love to be able to find CD's and the book by Johnny Forrest. My uncle, Andrew Forrest Barr, was also from Carluke area. He and his wife, Agnes MacLeod, always had records by Johnny Forrest to enjoy: our whole family never missed Don Messer and loved all Scottish music. If anyone knows how to obtain these, I would really appreciate the information. Thanks very much, Marion

Posted by Marion (Barr) Vermeersch | January 18, 2015 Report Violation

Hello Johnny , It was such a honour meeting you this morning at the seniors Greek Luncheon . Regards Nita ( belly Dancer)

Posted by Nita Dcosta | October 16, 2014 Report Violation

I am doing work on my family tree and would love any pictures, or letters or stories you might be able to provide of Naomi Messer (Gray) My grandmother, Bertha Georgie-Ruth Gray was her sister. Recently I read the book, "Don Messer: The Man Behind the Music" by Johanna Bertin and found oodles of information, but not enough! :) If you know of any other books or can steer me in the right direction to research the stories from the Gray family I sure would appreciate it! Thank you, Kim Schander

Posted by Kim Schander | October 28, 2013 Report Violation

Hi Johnny, we think of you often. Please contact us at same address or by email. Resa & Bob

Posted by Bob McKenzie | March 23, 2012 Report Violation

Johnny, my old friend, I always think of you, when I travel to Sweden, I am up in the Similkameen country, it would be nice to heare from you. we are not getting any younger ok laddie
ttys, Elef

Posted by Elef Christensen | May 15, 2011 Report Violation

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